Listen to What the Disease is Telling You!

In his first post for Turfhugger, Jason Haines of Pender Harbour Golf Club in the rugged Sunshine Coast of BC, describes how he tries to understand the underlying reasons for the health of his turf and not mask a problem by using preventative treatments. Haines has been in the turf industry since 2001 and graduated from Fairview college's Turfgrass Management Technology program in 2005. While not at the golf course Haines volunteers with the Sunshine Coast Search and Rescue.

Welcome to Turfhugger Jason.
Scott J Morrison.

For years we as turfgrass managers have been taught to make preventative pesticide applications.  The logic behind this was that if you could prevent the problem you would in turn have to use less chemicals to control the pest.  In some cases this is true.  There are some pests out there that you just don't want to get.  In the case of cool season turfgrass fungal diseases during the summer I think that you can afford to skip the preventatives and here's why.

When we get sick it is often for a reason.  You get a cold because you forgot to wash your hands or touched something that was infected.  You get heart problems because you smoked for 20 years and had a poor diet and ate deep fried everything for lunch.  You get diabetes because you ate too much sugars when you were young.  Out turf is exactly the same.  When it gets sick there is often a reason why.  There are many things that can kill our grass but where I'm from (West Coast of Canada) our main threat to the health of our turfgrass comes from fungi.
Dollar spot is a fungus that can wreak havoc
on poorly maintained putting greens.
Each fungal disease has a very specific range of environmental conditions that it requires to thrive.  These conditions often aren't conducive to the growth of healthy turf.  Shade, moisture or drought stress, compaction, lack of air in the soil, excess or lack of fertility, and otherwise unhealthy turf lead to disease.  In the summer we have almost total control over all of these conditions.

So if we are making preventative fungicide applications we aren't seeing the active disease.  The poor growing conditions are still there but we are covering up our poor management with fungicides.  This active disease tells us a lot about what our turf is experiencing.

Yellow patch usually doesn't harm the turf
but it can tell you what could be done better!

At first sign of Dollar spot I know that my greens are probably dry and that I should irrigate in the middle of the night to knock off the dew.  When I see Anthracnose I know that my greens are over-watered or under-fertilized.  Who needs fancy dancy electronic tools when you have fungi?

We need to change the way we think about pests on turfgrass.  I see the disease on my turf as my most valuable tool for maintaining healthy turfgrass.  By spraying preventatives I am basically throwing away my most valuable tool as a turf manager.

When I use less chemicals on my greens I have less surprises.  Covering up the poor conditions of your turfgrass with chemicals will only make the infection worse and more severe when it has the chance to infect.  If you have no chemicals on your turf the initial infection will be less sever because the environmental conditions on your turf don't change that rapidly.  Compaction slowly builds, drought doesn't happen overnight, irrigation systems don't over-water, trees don't decide to shade your turf on a whim, thatch doesn't appear in a week, layering in your soil happens over years, etc.

Early sign of Fusarium on putting greens.  This
particular infection took a month to cause
significant damage that would warrant a
corrective fugicide application
Now sometimes you will be hit with a particular disease and the only option would be to spray some pesticides.  This usually happens when we cannot control the environment especially during the winter months.  This gets me thinking so stay tuned for a future blog post on my theories about not having to control the environment to prevent disease.

Here's my challenge to everyone.  Let the disease and pests on your course tell you what's wrong.  Don't kill them, use them to make your grass better!


Really, really great post Jason. Very much what we have done here at Northland. I agree that too often preventative apps are made for disease that have very little chance of causing significant problems.

We worked to increase the bio-diversity of our soils over the past few years. This has allowed us to nearly eliminate in-season fungicide apps. It has been fascinating to experience.

Great Post Jason. I have thought the same thing for years. I hate the paint it white sleep at night mentality. This is a difficult situation for many to deal with in an industry where only perfection is tolerated and we that fact that we are a product based industry. Keep up the good work.

The hardest part about doing this is getting off the preventative program. It totally opens up the possibility that all your grass could die because of the problems that the preventative applications masked. Know the facts, the numbers, don't make any guesses on the health of your turf and this won't be an issue for the "perfectionists"

I think you are right on Jason. The hardest part is getting away from the preventative nature of treating disease. When your turf is used to be propped up by chemical there is a "weening" process that needs to take place. Saw it here my first year. We slowly stripped everything away and the turf did not initially act favorably. My first year we had very little disease pressure yet we had several outbreaks of dollar spot. With each year we have done more to increase the bio-diversity of the soils and the turf for that matter. The past two years, despite much higher pressure than my first year we have seen very little dollar spot. This year we had zero outbreaks on fairways with no fungicide applied.

When we do get dollar spot because it is untreated it is fascinating to see what how it is affected by the environment. I can see active disease one morning, then maybe a little bit of wind the next night and its no longer active the following morning. I am a big believer in breaking the disease life cycle as a method of control.

Dollar spot is one of those diseases that, in my opinion, is easy to control. This year as I as "weening" my turf off of the winter applications I had a huge outbreak overnight of dollarspot. I can now at will start a dollarspot outbreak. I simply just don't knock off the dew and lean my soil moisture down below 20%. I did this twice this summer just to see if I could... Call me crazy but by deliverately inducing the disease I could better understand it and learn how to control it. Now I know that if my soil moisture goes below 20% combined with no precip in the form of rain or irrigation, i will see dollar spot. This is of course limited to my climate and microclimates as well as less than desirable fertility and other cultural practices...but I'm working on lessening the stress on my turf...something hard to do when I have virtually no budget or staff!